July 25, 2022
By Kurt Allemeier
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Alongside the M16 rifle, the M60 machine gun became one of the most recognizable weapons to come out of the Vietnam War.
That is understandable since the gun, nicknamed the “pig,” was everywhere in the conflict, not just on the ground, but in the air and on the water as well. The gun was carried through the jungles by GIs, provided covering fire from Huey helicopters, and were mounted on gunboats of the brown water navy.
The M1919 general purpose machine gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) were used by the U.S. military during World War II. However, the M1919 was 31 lbs. and used a tripod that weighed an additional 16 lbs. while the BAR had limited ammo feed capacity. After the Korean War, the Defense Department decided a machine gun that combined the two was needed.
Ordnance experts had grown enamored of captured German MG42 machine guns and wanted something similar.
The MG42 that inspired the M60 was a stamped metal machine gun that went into production in 1942 and earned the nickname “Hitler’s buzzsaw” because it could spit out up to 1,200 rounds per minute. It was full auto only with about 400,000 made during World War II.
German troops found the MG42 to be reliable and accurate but also that it burned through a lot of ammunition and tended to quickly overheat. The rate of fire was double that of American and British machine guns. The German army adapted by adding additional soldiers to squads to carry the extra ammo needed.
The MG42’s ripping noise — Soviet soldiers called it “the linoleum ripper” — was so intimidating the War Department created a training film to combat the psychological effect on soldiers. The film downplayed the gun’s lethality and played up its inaccuracy.
An early prototype was the T44 that merged a pair of German guns, the MG42’s ammunition belt-fed mechanism and the firing action of the FG42, a select fire rifle used by German paratroopers. The T44 was chambered in .30-06 and had a pistol grip and forward handguard and buttstock similar to the FG42. The gun’s development ended in 1948 as the focus turned to the soon-to-be-adopted 7.62mm NATO round.
After the T44 machine gun came the T52 that was chambered in what would be the new NATO cartridge. The T52 was similar to the T44 but with a top opening position, different from the T44’s left-side cover assembly. The T52 and the T161, the latest model designed for mass production, were developed alongside each other.
The military specifications called for a machine gun weighing no more than 18 lbs. with a cyclic rate of fire of 600 rounds per minute and using a disintegrating belt feed, a flash hider, and quick-change barrel. Despite tipping the scales at 23 lbs., the T161 was adopted and re-designated the M60. The BAR weighed about 16 lbs.
The open bolt, gas-operated, air-cooled, and belt-fed M60 offered plenty of firepower against structures and vehicles and throw plenty of lead down range. The fire rate of 600 rounds per minute was controllable and didn’t waste ammo.
The M60 was first issued in 1959 and went into widespread service in Vietnam in 1965. The gun, without a buttstock, was soon mounted on helicopters, armored personnel carriers, tanks, and gunboats. On helicopters, the M60 could fire more than 5,000 rounds per day which could cause the lightweight receivers to stretch or crack so replacements had to be fitted after about 100,000 rounds.
Soldiers loved it for its reliability but hated it because of the bulk and awkward process of changing out the barrel. The bipod was attached to the barrel, so extra barrels also had the bipod attached. That didn’t sit well with GIs looking to travel as light as possible.
During the Vietnam War, the M60 was assigned to a soldier who was new to the unit because the veterans considered them expendable since the squad machine gun often attracted the most attention in a firefight. This was not to their advantage as someone inexperienced with the M60 wouldn’t know what was likely to jam it up, plus a soldier with the physique to handle a heavier weapon could likely wield it more lethally.
While the gun was designed to be fired from the shoulder and hip as well as prone, soldiers complained about the weight despite it being one of the lightest general purpose machine guns of its time. Shoulder and hip firing of course were less accurate than firing from the prone position with the bipod.
An early problem identified by soldiers was that foliage or fatigues could catch the barrel change lever and release the barrel without warning. A push-button mechanism replaced the lever in 1966.
The trigger group was held by two pins kept in place by a flat spring. The sear could wear down and malfunction, making for a runaway gun. A second sear notch helped lessen the problem. Also, the gas system could unthread itself, so soldiers often used wire to tie the pieces in place.
The M60 was a mainstay of the American military until 1994 when testing began for a replacement. After Vietnam, the M60 went head to head with the heavier Fabrique Nationale MAG, which was ultimately chosen over the M60 and called the M240 in the U.S. arsenal. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard continue to use the M60 as do several militaries around the world, like Algeria, Greece, Spain, and Turkey.
The M60 got its Hollywood moment in the 1980s as Vietnam War-related stories started making it to film screens. John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, in “First Blood” may be the most memorable of the M60 gunners in action movies along with everyone’s favorite Texas Ranger, Chuck Norris, who wielded an M60 in 1984’s “Missing in Action.”
Realistic Vietnam War movies also used the ubiquitous M60, ranging from “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket” in 1986 and 1987, to “Hamburger Hill,” also in 1987, and “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Casualties of War” in 1989.
The Internet Movie Firearms Database notes that though the M60 was frequently used in the 1980s, it continued to have movie credits through 2019.
A mainstay of American firepower during the Vietnam War and beyond, the M60 was an important weapon of the 20th century as the U.S. military continued to develop and utilize the latest and best weapons.
As a movie prop it showed the might of the action heroes who wielded them and the war tales of the lowly grunts who carried them through the jungle. Four examples of this iconic American machine gun will be on offer in Rock Island Auction Company’s Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.
The Rock Island Auction newsletter offers readers new gun blogs and gun videos every week on popular U.S. Military arms like the M1 Garand, the Armalite AR-15, the M17 pistol, the M1911, America's back to back World War champs, and more. And check out our free gun catalogs for the latest highlights!
The M60 General Purpose Machine Gun Was One of the Vietnam War’s Iconic Weapons, Carol O. Schuster, historynet.com
M60 Machine Gun Was Loved, Hated by GIs, Robert F. Dorr, Defense Media Network
Why America’s M60 Machine Gun Has Stood the Test of Time, By Charlie Gao, nationalinterest.org
Anyone thinking about dipping their toe into the world of firearms collecting should visit one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector
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